After a fraught few days and a highly emotional debate at Labor’s national conference, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has secured the right to turn back asylum seeker boats if he becomes prime minister.
The conference defeated on a show of hands an amendment from the left that rejected turning away boats of asylum seekers saying “it undermines the co-operation required to reach sustainable regional processing arangements”.
The victory was essential to Shorten. The issue had become the most dangerous one for him at this conference. He came under sustained attack after he announced on Wednesday that a Labor government must have the option of turning back boats. Many in the left were deeply angered by what they regarded as an ambush.
Although the right and left numbers are evenly balanced at the conference, there were differences in the left, especially because of the ramifications if the leader was rebuffed, so ensuring Shorten had the numbers in the end.
But the issue put the most senior left-wingers around Shorten in a difficult position, which they resolved differently. Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek and Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, both installed proxies, parliamentarians Terri Butler and Katy Gallagher, to register anti-turnback votes, so they did not have to personally vote against the leader.
But infrastructure spokesman Anthony Albanese, Shorten’s former leadership rival, did not take that course. He voted for the unsuccessful amendment.
There was a moment of drama at the start of the debate when a small group of protesters descended from the back of the vast auditorium at Melbourne’s convention centre down the steps to the stage and unfurled a banner reading “NO REFUGEE TOW-BACKS”. Having made their point, they left when ALP president Mark Butler ordered the sign to be removed.
The debate, with just eight speakers, was both deeply passionate and carefully managed, with many mentions of respect for opposing views. Its tone contrasted with some of the harsh talk behind closed doors of the last few days.
Hours before the late afternoon debate, Shorten began the day by announcing a package of proposed measures to pave the way for toughening the policy.
These included: a doubling of the refugee intake to 27,000 by 2025; abolition of temporary protection visas; reinstatement of mentions of the UN Refugee Convention in the Migration Act; A$450 million to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees; and work with other countries to implement independent oversight of all Australian-funded facilities.
Other measures promised would ensure refugee claims were processed as quickly as possible by restoring access to the Refugee Review Tribunal and increasing transparency; end children in detention as soon as possible; and establish an independent children’s advocate as well as impose mandatory reporting of any child abuse in facilities.
Shorten spoke at the end of the debate, declaring that he could not take to the Australian people at the next election a policy that may contribute to people drowning.
“I would not be the leader I seek to be of this nation if I avoided my own conviction on this matter. People were getting on unsafe boats and they were drowning. There’s no moral one-upmanship here,” Shorten said.
“I promise all of you a Labor government will support immigration, will support refugees and we will not reopen the lethal seaway between Java and Christmas Island.
"I believe we can win the argument that refugees have been good for this country, that we can take more refugees, treat refugees more humanely and keep people safe.”
The most emotional speech in the highly charged debate came from frontbencher Tony Burke, who was Labor’s last immigration minister. Tears welling in his eyes, Burke said he was in the portfolio less than four months and 33 lives had been lost on his watch – one of them a baby only ten weeks old.
“I was given his name on a Post It note – I kept that name on my desk until we lost office,” Burke said.
Burke said that he knew which policies worked and which did not. If people smugglers could put an argument to desperate people, those people would take the risk of getting on boats.
“I want more people to get here – but every single one to get here safely,” Burke said.
Burke warned that the Liberals would “bugle the message out” if a Labor government rejected turnbacks.
“If we give hope to the trade, we will end up helping fewer people and hundreds will start the journey and never complete it.”
The unsuccessful amendment was moved by left MP Andrew Giles who stressed that whether he won or lost the debate he was proud to be part of Bill Shorten’s team. Giles said that turnbacks were “clearly contrary to our international obligations”.
Immigration spokesman Richard Marles told delegates the conference faced a “hard decision – but we cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading today”.
After the vote, there was a feeling of relief that the most explosive issue of the conference had been successfully resolved. But several observers wearing red t-shirts inscribed with “DON’T Turnback” were in tears. Political necessity had prevailed but their anguish symbolised the dismay that many Labor activists will inevitably feel.